Nathan McGovern, “The Snake and The Mongoose: The Emergence of Identity in


McGovern is for years following a very interesting approach of ‘interdependent emergence of religions’ which in principle makes a lot of sense. As so often with newer strong ideas he is sometimes overshooting the mark. He understates for example the essential aspect of minutely described rituals for the pre-Buddhist Brahmin identity.

Also, the ‘Brahmin renunciant’ is simply not present until Yajnavalkya of the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, who while probably pre-Buddhist, was still likely influenced by sramanas (after all the BU was probably composed in Magadha/Videha). Likewise, the jatila is probably not an independent brand of Brahmin wanderer but can clearly be established only after the Buddha/Mahavira and might well have been sramana-influenced as well. The Dharmasutras he refers to are also 2-3 centuries after Brahmanism has been exposed to the eastern sramana culture.

But, even though there is more ‘positivistic’ knowledge and chronology available than he sees, McGovern has a very fruitful approach of seeing religious identity as the result of a dialectic process of interdependence, and in this sense it’s a very good read.


A couple of questions arose in my mind as I listened to the interview.

One is this: McGovern said that at the time of the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism, “all kinds of people were calling themselves Brahmins” and concludes that what we think of as the Brahmin identity - a priest and master of the vedas who performs sacrifices and belongs to a hereditary lineage that regards itself as as the top of the Varna system - was not yet in place. But perhaps it was in place, but some of the many people calling themselves Brahmins didn’t know what it was. If we follow Bronkhorst’s narrative in which these religions emerged during a period of increasing contact between the Magadhan samana movements and Brahminism, couldn’t it be that as the samanas came to learn gradually about these people called “Brahmins” in the west, they began with the vague idea that the Brahmins were some kind of “holy men”, and so began to call themselves Brahmins out a sort of ignorant and imprecise adoption of a cool foreign-sounding word? (Think of all the contemporary western uses of the word “guru”.)

Another question I have has to do with the possibility of different kinds of renunciant ascetic lifestyles. Even if Brahminism didn’t have any tradition of wandering ascetics, prior to their encounters with the samanas, couldn’t they still have had a less extreme form of renunciation - for example, a retiring life in a forest hermitage, living not by householdership, or by wandering and begging, but by performing occasional sacrifices or other rituals for a donation?


That is kind of a weird notion that McGovern has, but the question is valid still, because both in Buddhist and Jain texts we find attempts to re-interpret what a ‘Brahmin’ is. In fact, we find it in the Upanisads as well. My personal take on it goes back to what ‘Brahmin’ originally meant, let’s say for the sake of simplicity ‘Great’.

Then we would have a whole hereditary group of people calling themselves ‘Great’, and others would intervene and say, ‘But you know who’s really great? The liberated one!’

What we certainly don’t have is people saying ‘I’m a Brahmin’, and then the other says ‘Wait, are you sure? Because I don’t think you follow the rituals’… etc. What we find is reinterpretations of the Brahmin, not confusion about what a Brahmin is. Even though Brahmins didn’t have a long history in Magadha before the Buddha still already the Satapatha Brahmana already knows of the expansion of Brahmins into that region, so that is at least 100+ years of exposure. Plus, there must have been many stories about what is going on in the West (for example about magnificent shocking rituals like the Asvamedha), and trade etc. So I cannot imagine that Magadhans or Kosalans were not aware of what a normal Brahmin actually was, even though many Brahmins might have still lives in Brahmin villages at that time, somewhat separated from the normal society maybe.

I can’t see real evidence for it. Before the sramanic influence Brahmins were not renouncers - the wealth of life was sons, cows, power, pride, victory, etc. The end goal of life was to be with the gods, and the tool for that was the proper execution of rituals, not solitude in the forests (even though some rituals were performed there). We have two ascetic frameworks in Brahmanism: brahmacariya where the vedic student had to lead a somewhat restrained austere life serving the master, and rituals - especially the diksa consecration ritual (which is also referenced clumsily in the suttas as ‘the one mortifying himself and others’). Also, Brahmacariya was not only a simple studentship but could go on for forty years or so, effectively creating an ascetic life - even though we don’t have many details about the actual life style.

Brahmacariya is indeed an interesting case, the austerity is centered around ideas of purity and spiritual rebirth. But the austerity of the rituals is functional, again for purification, and in order to attract the gods so that the following rituals are effective. There is no grounds to deduce an ascetic lifestyle beyond that (apart from the occasional mention of muni or kesin in the Vedas, but again, no details).


Can you recommend a good book on pre-5th century and pre-Upanishadic Brahminism?

Seems like the influence was going both ways as a result of the encounter between the Vedic and Maghadan cultures.

It’s such a vast field, but I can recommend: Gonda, J. (1975). Vedic literature. Vol. I. Saṃhitās and Brāhmaṇas.

Beyond that I’m afraid I only know excellent studies about certain topics, e.g. rituals, cosmology, rebirth, etc.

Thanks for the interesting discussion!

The idea that brahmin identity was confused seems hard to argue for, unless you simply dismiss all the evidence of the Pali canon.

On the ultimate meaning of “Brahmin”: I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned this before, but I think the root meaning is “mana” AKA “magic” AKA the vital power that enlivens all things, and which may be harnessed and controlled via ritual, witchcraft, voodoo, etc.


If that root meaning was still alive in people’s minds in the Buddha’s time, then would a good translation for “Brahmin” be “magus”?

Yes, we discussed the topic not too long ago here: Is Brahman found in the early Buddhist suttas?

I can’t say I"m convinced by any very specific interpretation of Brahman. And I guess your interpretation as mana, magic etc. @sujato is general inference, or do you refer to specific sources?

Apart from the sources mentioned in the other thread I can cite here a nice work by Neri & Pontillo:
Neri, C., & Pontillo, T. (2014). Words involving the Stem Brahman. Denoting the achievement of Super-Human status in Vedic and Suttapiṭaka sources. INDOLOGICA TAURINENSIA , 40 , 151-194.

They do fine research, with a few limitations: They take too seriously McGovern’s and Bronkhorst’s overly novel ideas and don’t mark post-Buddha Upanisads clearly enough. Anyhow, a good collection of sources with the conclusion:

In our opinion, the word brahma in the Pāli Canon has three sets of meanings: in some cases it indicates the gods and all the compounds attached to such figures; in others, it is a compound: on some occasions it means “best, excellent”; in other particular circumstances, however, it is used as a technical term to indicate the super-human dimension connected to the Dharma.

In a strictly ritual pre-Buddha context we find brahman as
(From Sen - A dictionary of Vedic Rituals)

My own tendency based on the sources is to go with ‘excellent’ or ‘grand’.


Yes, merely a personal inference. It seems like a very ancient notion, earlier than the Vedas, and mana, in one form or another, is one of the most pervasive and widespread of fundamental human ideas about how the world works. Everything about how brahma is conceived, how it relates to other gods, how he relates to the brahmins, makes sense if it is considered as an evolved form of mana.

Note too, the argument on indra/indriya I gave in my SN sutta guide: indriya is the divine (drug-induced) animating force of the god indra. A brāhmaṇa is, in just the same way, imbued with the force/essence/magic potency that is called “brahman”, which manifests as taboo, sacred power, ritual efficacy, etc.

Thus the root br would be very old, and bury countless layers of evolution within itself.

I mean literally, yes, or “mage” or “magician”. But these all have such different connotations in English; in particular, the aren’t connected with “religion”. In the west, the tendency was to separate divine power out from humans and ascribe it all to god, who would give it when he felt like it. In Asia, as in the animist notion of mana, divine power was everywhere; brahma is not really the source of it, he is just a strong manifestation of the same energy we can tap into.

Hey, maybe the best translation of brahmin would be “Jedi”, and brahman is “the Force”? :lightsaber:


There are quite a lot of words in the old languages that might have the same ethymology, all of these words mean “mage” or “magician”:
Spanish brujo
Iberian/Celtiberian bruxtia
Catalan bruixa
Portuguese bruxa
Occitan bruèissa
Proto-Celtic brixtā (“spell, magic”)
Old Irish bricht (“charm”)
Old Breton brith (“magic”)
But the ethymological origins of any of these words is undertain.


Fascinating! So a brahmana could be compared to a shaman?

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Ha! It seems like I have another excuse to use the OED. :grin:

mage, n.

magus, n.

Brahmin | Brahman, n.

shaman, n. and adj.

magician, n.

magic, n.


what’s the root:brexit?

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Do you mean the etymology of Brexit?

OED gives “Etymology: < Br- (in British adj.) and exit n., after Grexit n.”

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